Lake groups try to minimize human impact
SENECA LAKE--Those who live, work or drive within sight of Seneca Lake find themselves often looking toward it, enjoying the way the light refracts off the water, looking for boats, watching for the "dragon" of vapor rising off the surface on cool mornings. Residents of municipalities near the lake drink its water. And those who know the lake well say the lake is also asking for something from everyone who lives uphill from it, in order for the health of the lake -- seen as fragile by some, viewed as under threat by many who have studied it -- to improve.
"I think Seneca Lake has two threats," says Mary Anne Kowalski, president of Seneca Lake Pure Waters Association (SLPWA). "One is nutrients from agriculture, septic systems, old wastewater treatment plants like the ones in Montour Falls and Watkins Glen and Dundee. We saw evidence of that this summer with the algae blooms. The other problem we've got is the salinity of the lake. The sodium content of the water is so high, have you seen those reports?" she asks, alluding to recent reports, including one by hydrologist Dr. Tom Myers, concluding that Seneca is saltiest of the Finger Lakes.
At the head of Seneca Lake, in Waterloo, James Bromka, chief of the water treatment plant there, noted in February the amount of dissolved sodium in the lake was nearly four times the state limit, meaning water sourced from the lake may not be healthy for hospital patients and those on sodium-restricted diets.
"We really need to do a lot more to protect the lake," Kowalski concludes. "The lake is showing evidence that everyone needs to do more to protect it."
For those who live near the lake shore in cottages and year-round homes, it's highly important to regularly check their septic systems to make sure they're not leaking into the lake, experts say. While rules for new construction require much safer household wastewater systems, in the bad old days 50 and 60 years ago when fewer people used the lake, it was not uncommon to legally install a 55-gallon drum punctured with holes near the shore in lieu of a septic tank, in the happy expectation that toxins would be harmlessly filtered through the gravel.
Even today, says Edith Davey, educator for the Ontario County Soil and Water Conservation District, "Three million gallons of septic effluent wastewater goes into the Seneca Lake watershed each year -- and that can only be an under-estimate."
Lake dweller and SLPWA board member Jim Carter, who lives on a point near Burdett, regularly spends time several days a week cleaning debris from his beach. "We find people dump leaves, and cut water-weed for bathing areas without removing it from the water," Carter says. "We don't try to figure out who's contributing it -- we just take care of it."
Using the lake as a waste disposal system -- including as a good place to walk dogs without picking up afterwards -- has proven a poor idea. E. coli and other bacteria potentially harmful to people and pets enter the water from animal feces, food waste and storm-drain run-off, often beginning well uphill, even out of sight of the lake, finding their way into creeks and other waterways feeding into the lake. The nutrients contribute to the growth of bacteria in the lake. Kowalski cites a landscape contractor fined for applying fertilizer to a neighbor's lawn -- and accidentally the sidewalk as well. Because it wasn't cleaned up, rain washed it into a storm drain, and it passed into the lake.
Dr. Richard Ahola, co-chair and one of the founders of the new Seneca Watershed Intermunicipal Organization, notes an unusually high amount of phosphorous was found entering the lake via Reeder Creek, a waterway about 10 miles south of Geneva. Reeder Creek flows through the former Seneca Army Depot; destroyed munitions are assumed to be the source of the phosphorous.
"One pound of phosphorus entering any fresh water lake supports the growth of 500 pounds of water weeds/algae," explains Davey. She also reminds homeowners that good leaf disposal practices, like shredding fallen leaves and using them for mulch or compost, can help keep excess nutrients out of the lake. Pollution from fall clean-up may not be the lake's largest problem, but "That doesn't excuse the individual person from doing the best they can," she notes. "And if the individual resident is not doing the best they can, they've got no right to point fingers. That may be human nature, but it's not helpful."
Stream monitoring on tributaries entering Seneca Lake including Catherine Creek, Reeder Creek, Big Stream and Keuka outlet helps establish the source of some pollutants. Interestingly, the salt used in winter to keep roadways safe has largely not shown up in the lake, supporting the conclusion that the lake's increasing salinity is the result of dissolved salt deposits.
Ahola, now a Dundee resident and a semi-retired chemist for the Rockefeller Pure Waters program, says he's had a long history of working on water pollution problems -- many worse than Seneca Lake. Nevertheless, he says, his studies have shown Seneca Lake is in need of attention. "Not only can it be fixed but something needs to be done. It takes 20 years for the water in Seneca Lake to clear out [to the other end], so we need to start now," he says. " I probably won't see the end of it, but there's no reason why Seneca Lake can't be as good as it was in the 1950s."
His organization can help find grants for municipalities to improve waste treatment plants, something that will happen sooner as people see this as a priority. "You don't have to live on the lake to protect the lake," he says.
Ahola said the organization will be working with groups like SLPWA and SLAP-5, but he is still unsure if SLAP-5 will continue once Seneca IO is fully up and running.
"One thing that became obvious was our organization was unable to affect policy," Ahola said. He noted SLAP-5 consisted of mostly soil and water experts, but it was still up to each individual municipality to determine which policies they would follow. Seneca IO is an evolution of that group to include members of each municipality, with its first official meeting coming in January of next year. He noted while SLAP-5 will be involved to help the group early on, it is yet to be determined in what capacity SLAP-5 will remain in the future.
Ahola said Seneca IO would be in charge of revising the watershed management plan and carrying out its goal to protect the water quality of Seneca Lake. He said more than half of the municipalities surrounding the lake have signed the memorandum of understanding for participation in the group, adding he hopes to have more involved by the group's January meeting.